As of recent, events regarding falling space junk have increasingly popped up on our news feeds. Experts worry of possible danger to human life and property.
In one of the most recent events, debris from a Russian anti-satellite weapon demonstration (ASAT) is now disturbing a new set of Starlink satellites with close approaches, threatening collision. Down south, in New South Wales, Australia, a farmer discovered a large black object in his field and it was found to have belonged to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship. The booster of the Long March 5B rocket, weighing 23 ton and belonging to China, made uncontrolled reentry towards Earth and rained over Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
These are just a few recent examples of space debris scattering around our planet. Space exploration has been around for a long time. While many leftovers from space vehicles burn up in Earth’s atmosphere during reentry, it is not uncommon for discarded pieces of space vehicles to find their way back to Earth. However, there is a standard practice to ensure controlled reentry into the Pacific Ocean. It is not the norm for space junk to strike ground.
According to Muelhaupt, who works on the Aerospace Corporation’s reentry database, falling space debris could become more and more frequent in the future, especially with the exponential growth of the spaceflight industry where we are witnessing mega-constellations of tens of thousands of satellites launching into orbit. With the orbits getting increasingly crowded, the odds of space junk spiraling back towards land becomes higher.
Don Pollacco, a professor of astrophysics at the UK’s Warwick University, also notes that heightened solar activity from the Sun as it moves towards solar maximum could also impact space infrastructure, inadvertently resulting in more debris falling to Earth. A more concerning study from Canada’s University of British Columbia, that was published in July, calculated a 10% chance of one or more people being killed by space debris in the next decade.
Fortunately, there are no technological limitations in rocket bodies reentering Earth in an uncontrolled manner. Most opt for controlled reentries to direct the falling debris away from populated areas, and towards a remote area of ocean. And space faring companies must commit to responsible space activities, including ensuring controlled reentry, to avoid any major disasters.
Regardless, we can never be too careful. As Muelhaupt puts it, “you do it often enough, you do it long enough, you’re going to get lucky and bring it down in the middle of a city park.”